Recently I learned of something even more disturbing than our former mayor’s pending indictment and imprisonment for 24 federal charges, including racketeering, extortion, and bribery.
In the United States, 60 percent percent of black male high-school dropouts will go to prison before they reach the age of 35. In addition, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with about 1 in 100 adults imprisoned. According to Harvard professor of sociology Bruce Western, the United States has reached “mass incarceration—a level of imprisonment so vast that it forges the collective experience of an entire social group.”
An incarceration rate of 1 in 100 pretty much guarantees that the average U.S. citizen knows someone or is associated in some way with a person who knows someone who is in prison. It has indeed become a part of our collective experience.
One of my husband’s former co-workers–we’ll call him Chip–retired from Ford Motor Company after over 33 years and was thoroughly enjoying his retirement. He was finally able to spend time with his wife and children doing the things that they enjoyed. A year into his retirement, a friend of a family member asked Chip if he wanted to make some extra cash. All he would need to do is ride with him to deliver drugs (weed) to a nearby state. Chip agreed to make the trip, just once. En route, the driver was pulled over for a routine stop as they passed through a small town outside of Michigan. The officer’s search of the vehicle uncovered over 30 pounds of weed. Although the drugs did not belong to Chip, he was arrested along with his friend, and at the age of 58, with no criminal record and no history of drug use, sentenced to three years in prison.
The average annual cost per inmate in Michigan, according to a report produced by Vera Institute of Justice in partnership with the Pew Center on the States, is roughly $28,117. Chip’s three-year stint cost him and his family irreparable damage and taxpayers roughly $85,000.
Breaking the law should, of course, have consequences, regardless of who the perpetrator happens to be. However, we have to ascertain what kind of consequences best serve to scale justice. In Chip’s case, could justice have been better served with him on the outside, performing community-service projects that utilized his 30-plus years of work experience? What is the return on investment to the community for the $85,000 spent to keep a non-violent criminal behind bars? How could a fraction of the cost of incarceration have been used to reduce the high-school dropout rate?
With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has one quarter of the world’s prison population—beating out countries that throw its citizens into prison for burning flags, or protesting, or writing the wrong thing in a newspaper. Either Americans have a really high propensity toward crime, or our system is broken. I’m going to lean toward the system being broken.
Over the next months, we’ll be looking at mass incarceration, prison reform, and restorative justice, along with ways to cut the pipeline feeding our youth into what some call the “prison-industrial complex.”